The Little Giant is a just-under-the-wire pre-code film that I’d often heard about, but never actually seen. I had assumed that it was one of those earnest, violent mobster films, but it’s actually a light comedy — and not a bad one, all told.
Bugsy Ahearne is the head of gang of mobsters who has been running a lucrative illegal beer running operation during Prohibition. (He’s known as the Beer Baron of Chicago.) He’s not a bad guy, signalled by the facts that his gang is very loyal to him and that he dealt only in beer and not harder liquors.
It’s 1933, FDR has just won the election, and Prohibition is about to end. Bugsy decides that the ride is over and he’s pulling out while he’s still got a large bankroll.
Now that he has to go straight, Bugsy wants legitimacy; he dreams of hanging out with the upper crust. He and his best buddy Al Daniels go off to Santa Barbara, California. After some unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the high life, he falls in love with Polly Cass, whose family has made its money by swindling people into investing in their fake bond business, and who accepts his marriage proposal so that Bugsy will invest in her family’s business, after which she intends to call it off.
In order to impress her, he buys a huge estate, formerly owned by the down-to-earth (but very pretty) Ruth, whose father was swindled out of his fortune by the Cass family.
The end (highlight following paragraph to view)
When the Cass family finds out who Bugsy really is, they haughtily break off the engagement. Rush tells Bugsy what the Cass family did to her father. Bugsy calls in his mob, they force the members of the board of directors of the company (all of whom are in on the swindle) to cough up enough money to pay back those they’ve swindled, and Bugsy realizes he really loves Ruth.
How it’s pre-code
Not much overt sex here, but on the other hand, sex before marriage is not terribly shocking either. Bugs makes it clear that while he’s never proposed marriage, he’s had a number of lady friends for whom marriage wasn’t an issue; when he says goodbye to the last of them, she is portrayed as being a good sport and generally nice person.
There’s also a somewhat startling drug reference: One of the gangsters says of a modern painting that he hadn’t seen anything like that “since I stopped using cocaine.”
T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)
Bugs is upset that he’s been bamboozled by the upper-crust family and refers to them as “fags.”
This was a pleasant-enough comedy and I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not a film that I’d necessary go back to. The filmmakers are so intent on making Bugs likable to the audience that you don’t believe for a moment that he spent years as the head of a bootlegging gang (even if they were only dealing in beer). The humor is gentle and the story enjoyable; the moral, as in many early Depression-era films, is that good sense and morality trumps wealth (even if you have to beat somebody up to do it).
I also thought that the whole plot reveals some fairly wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers: That when Prohibition ended, the organized crime syndicates that it engendered would disappear as well. Unfortunately, as we all know, the mobs simply moved on to bigger – and worse — things.